The government’s recent ‘plan for drivers’ recommended the use of red flashing lights on breakdown and recovery vehicles.

This will likely encourage drivers to take more care around the vehicles on call at the roadside.

However, research into the issue fails to back the government’s plans.


A study into the rollout of red flashing warning lights on breakdown and recovery vehicles has concluded there is no evidence from trials that they result in any “discernible” change in driver behaviour.

At the time of the government’s announcement, the AA and RAC welcomed the news.

New TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) investigations, commissioned by the DfT, suggests that  red flashing lights seem to lead to only a slight increase in the perception of ‘danger’ or ‘prepare to stop’, compared with amber.

Any decision to change regulations to allow the use of red flashing lights by road recovery industry vehicles, should be supported by extensive engagement with the industry, states the report. This should ensure that recovery operators are not misled into expecting direct safety benefits from this change alone.

Uniting approaches

TRL research suggests that there are several actions that could make a difference and are already  permitted within current regulations. These have the potential to improve approaching drivers’ identification of vehicles in high-risk locations. In turn, this should improve safety for their technicians and other road users.

Changes could be undertaken and developed as a co-operative ongoing action by the industry. By creating and implementing an industry-wide vehicle safety improvement strategy, the industry could help itself.

The report recommends that the breakdown and recovery industry should “work together to develop an improvement strategy incorporating various actions to improve safety”.

This should include how any legally permitted technologies, colours and flash patterns should be used.

Identifying a common industry definition of ‘high-risk location’, a common ‘urgent’ flash rate for use in high-risk locations only, and a common, slower, lighting flash pattern to be used consistently in all other locations should be included in the work.

Technical templates

Lighting designers and manufacturers would be required in the development of systems capable of controlling and displaying appropriate flash patterns and lighting intensity. Complying with regulations and aligning with research findings could be part of the framework of development says the report.

Appropriate training of operatives would need to be part of the process of any practical changes.  They would need to understand the purpose and appropriate use of flashing rates and patterns.

Currently, the overuse of amber beacons, not limited to the road recovery industry, is believed to undermine their effectiveness. Involving other authorised amber beacons users to encourage responsible and appropriate use of beacons is also important in any changes. Reviewing conditions of membership along with updates to guidance and training on beacon use, potentially with monitoring and reporting.

Drive with care

The project identified several areas of concern should authorisation be granted for the road recovery industry to display rear-facing red flashing lamps. More widespread use might “potentially have adverse effects on other road users”.

These include increased glare (if the total amount of light output increases, i.e. red being added to current amber). This could reduce drivers’ ability to identify pedestrians in the area around the recovery vehicle.

Also, increasing the use of red flashing lamps could reduce drivers’ reactions to red lights, including live lane closures.

The safety of other users of other vehicles utilising amber warning lamps could be impeded.

Therefore, TRL says that any change to permissions should consider the potential impacts on other users.

Finally, several contributing industry stakeholders expressed the view that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) should be considered a key stakeholder and involved with consultation regarding any decision on authorisation of red flashing lamp use by the industry.

Theory and practice

Two other actions with potential long-term benefits are recommended by the TRL report.

Constantly reviewing any changes and their effectiveness. Included in this should be a common database of all collisions involving industry vehicles and personnel.

This incident recording may inform improvements to working practices and development of targeted safety advice and equipment, the report says.

TRL’s second recommendation is that any change in the lighting or other technologies permitted should be supported by public education on the meanings of different conspicuity technologies.

This could include related elements within the Hazard Perception Test and Theory Test for new drivers, and changes to the Highway Code.